Women and politics in Southeast Asia: Navigating a man’s world

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Abstract

This panel intends to combine the book launch of the edited volume “Women and politics in Southeast Asia: navigating a man’s world” (by Theresa W. Devasahayam, Portland, Oregon: Sussex Academic Press, Series: The Sussex Library of Asian and Asian American Studies, 2019) with a discussion on three distinct Southeast Asian case studies of androcentric politics, namely Burma/Myanmar, Singapore and Indonesia. It is well known that politics is a male- dominated realm constructed as a male preserve and that women are never “admitted as full and equal members of most polities”, particularly in the case of formal party politics (Fagan and Munck 1997, 103). The complex terrain of formal party politics and women’s experiences in this arena has led to a wave of studies offering a glimpse into the different facets of women’s engagement or, for that matter, disengagement in the political domain. The book to be launched as well as the conference panel presentations contribute to the discourse on women and politics in Southeast Asia by exploring how women navigate the power structures embedded in a male-dominated realm. As in much of the literature on the subject, politics encompasses processes, events, and activities pertaining to the governance of a country or area related to government, parliament, parties and generally the state that regulate public life. While the book acknowledges that there has been a growing literature on the role of women in politics in Southeast Asia, there is far less research which analyses in detail the asymmetrical power relationships between the sexes. This is a gap that deserves to be addressed. In keeping with this aim, we attempt to highlight the “contextually specific ways in which politics constructs gender and gender constructs politics” (Waylen 1998, 1). In regards to gender relations, it must be recognized that Southeast Asia is unique in one respect – women in this region, relative to their sisters in other parts of Asia, enjoy considerable power and autonomy (Dube 1997; Raybeck 1980/1981, 1992; Stivens 1996; Stoler 1977; Strange 1981; Sullivan 1994; Wolf 1990, 1992; Wazir Jahan Karim1992). But does this power and autonomy Southeast Asian women hold translate into greater engagement in politics for them? For this purpose, we present the three case studies, investigating the:

  • opposition politician-turned-de facto head of government Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma/Myanmar in a context of androcentric transition politics at the backdrop of a long-ruling military regime;
  • competing realities and gender roles negotiations of female candidates in Singapore, having to negotiate a “triple burden” when entering politics at the backdrop of a socio-political patriarchal reality, with blurred lines between public and private patriarchy and the challenges it generates;
  • the gender-specific barriers that female members of a matriarchal community face in Indonesia when negotiating regional- and national-level androcentric politics and gender roles prescriptions; thus in an arena which exacerbates or inhibits by its setup and dynamics the transfer and employment of otherwise accumulated power and capital.